Lisa Wolpe founded the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company, and it is an award-winning and ground breaking labor of love that is a phoenix rising from the ashes of her innocence. Wolpe has two shows running concurrently at HERE Arts through August 14 and both are must-see, not only for people who enjoy Shakespeare, but also for those who enjoy the diamonds that artists distill from the coal in the earlier parts of their lives.
“Shakespeare & the Alchemy of Gender” runs about an hour and Wolpe candidly tells the story of how Shakespeare saved her life. Discovering Shakespeare at 19 provided the canvas upon which she could mine the experiences and pain of her earlier life and make beauty from chaos. A poet and scholar in her own right, framed in Shakespeare, Wolpe gives us a portrait of her father, Hans Max Joachim Wolpe, who was a war hero in World War Two. He was born in Berlin and fought the Nazis with the Canadian Winnipeg Rifles, according to Wolpe’s introduction of him, and his primary weapon was not a gun, but his wit. We can see this in abundance in his daughter. Wracked with the memory of his experiences, his melancholy overcame him when Wolpe was four, and he committed suicide.
When Wolpe delivers speeches as Iago, as Richard III, as Henry V, and as Shylock, we plumb the depth of the canon of Shakespeare’s characters, along with her considerable talent. Her voice paints in oils with depth and richness of tone and nuance, and you want to hear her in these roles as they appear in the full-length plays. It is the intertwining depth of the personal and art and the internecine twists and turns that I find most fascinating. We are, as humans, as tuned to the power of story and the art of storytelling as the Stradivarius violins that Wolpe invokes early on in her performance. She speaks of putting these masterfully-made violins across the room from one another, and a string plucked on one vibrates the same in sympathy. In the intimate space of HERE Arts, we are all Stradivarius violins. “Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender” is for those who resonate with making artistic order from the chaos of life.
“What a piece of work is man” may well describe Wolpe’s other featured work , “Macbeth3.” Chaos in life is sometimes caused by outside agents and at other times from those within. Wolpe’s distillation of the Scottish Play into an 80-minute delight is a great introduction to Shakespeare for the Twitter attention-span set. Co-directed by Natsuko Ohama, with amazing costumes by Kelly Horrigan—I especially loved Satan’s red leather ensemble—and set by Mia Torres. The dystopian once-and-future of the set features a variety of entrances, no spoilers, and the acoustic talent of the actors, as they explore dynamic range from frantic to supported whisper, is heard in every corner of the theater. This could be named “Bloody Bloody Scottish Play,” because these players are not fooling around ! The fight choreography, the actors’ craft, and the interpretations will all satisfy devotees of the Bard, while the story and the language are sufficiently easy to follow for those who are in the early throes of their relationship with the nuance of one of the world’s greatest playwrights.
Make plans to see these shows while they are here. If you are an intensity junkie, it’s even possible to see these shows in rolling repertory–a further tip o’the hat to Wolpe’s talent and commitment. Two very different shows involving Shakespeare, life experience, and a depth of talent that you are unlikely to experience anywhere else. Visit www.here.org
now, without delay, as these shows end their run on August 14. I’m already making plans to return.